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Abuse Victims Flock To Lawyers

Jul 31, 2002 | USA Today It is routine for attorney Mitchell Garabedian to spend most of the day at his age-worn desk, listening to clients cry. Men often sob through their first few meetings with Garabedian as they wrestle with horrific memories of being sexually abused by a priest. Tears flow so copiously that Garabedian must restock boxes of tissues in his office's tiny closet nearly every week.

But as the monologues roll out long-hidden emotions, he listens for other things. Dates, names and places provide facts to confirm the stories. Life histories of alcoholism, drugs, sexual dysfunction and legal problems are evidence of trauma caused by abuse.

"It's very hard to fake these stories. You learn to recognize the patterns of truth," says Garabedian, who will interrogate Boston Cardinal Bernard Law in open court this week as part of a civil suit against the Boston Archdiocese. The suit, which claims the archdiocese failed to stop former priest John Geoghan from molesting hundreds of boys, was the catalyst for the abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church.

Garabedian has become a practiced listener. His client list has grown from 86 in his original suit against the archdiocese to more than 200 today. He still receives calls daily.

And he is not alone.

Lawyers across the country are being inundated by people claiming they, too, were abused. At least 300 lawsuits have been filed nationwide against priests and church officials. Hundreds more are in the works.

As a result, the scandal is creating a new legal niche for lawyers who once worked tort and personal liability suits. These new cases are expected to become a fixture in the civil courts for years.

"The impact on the courts will be more than even the numbers suggest," says Patrick Schiltz of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

Schiltz, who has defended churches of different denominations in 500 abuse suits over the past decade, says such suits are not new. But the avalanche of cases "involves huge stakes in terms of money (and) policy issues."

This new kind of practice isn't easy or as lucrative as the few publicized multimillion-dollar payouts might suggest. Most allegations go back a decade or more, requiring lengthy — and costly — research.

Most attorneys take the cases on speculation. That can mean a big payday of up to a 30% share of a judgment or settlement. But attorneys can wind up with nothing if the case fails.

And newcomers to sexual abuse litigation can find it an emotionally jarring change from the world of personal liability law.

"With a slip-and-fall case, you know all you need to know in a 20-minute interview," says Stephen Rubino, a Margate, N.J., attorney who has represented abuse victims since 1985. "With these cases, you have to provide hours of tentative listening and counseling. If you can't do it at a gut level, you won't last a month at this."

'Surprisingly' few stories fake

Attorneys also face a delicate task of weeding out false claims. Some use polygraphs or voice-stress analysis. Most simply talk to clients, listening for contradictions.

"There are a certain number of people who come in with claims that are outside the realm of believability or claims that don't fit the abuse pattern," says Ken Lapatine, a New York attorney whose firm, Greenberg Traurig, has established church abuse units in many of its 18 national offices.

"Some people tell you outrageous things or change their story. But they make up a surprisingly small percentage," he says.

Bob Sherman, who represents 200 church abuse clients in Boston, says only one out of 50 approach him with questionable stories.

"A true victim's first questions aren't about money. They're looking for help to justify what they've gone through," he says. "My antennae go way up if someone calls and immediately wants to know how much the case is worth."

It is not known how many lawsuits are pending against Catholic dioceses nationwide. An Associated Press survey found 300 cases had been filed around the country in the first five months of 2002. Each case may include dozens of individual plaintiffs.

Still uncounted are the claims that continue to pour into lawyers' offices. Jeff Dion, deputy director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association, makes referrals daily to 72 attorneys experienced in the field, but no one knows how many others are taking cases.

Those already active say they are swamped.

Sheldon Stevens, a Rockledge, Fla., attorney who represented abuse victims in the 1990s, received so many calls he decided to come out of semi-retirement. His record: 23 calls in one day.

A 'new freedom' to speak out

Rubino has seen more than 100 cases since January. "I have a 14-inch stack of files on my desk," he says. "What has surprised everyone in this field is the new freedom people feel to tell their stories. We never had any idea that we were going to see a good chunk of them. It has been an experience."

The experience began for Garabedian in 1993, when he had a modest practice of personal injury and immigration law. A mother came to him saying her three sons told of being abused by a priest.

"I thought, 'Bad priest. I'll tell the church, and they'll take care of it,' " recalls Garabedian, a slight, 51-year-old bachelor who grew up in Methuen, Mass., where he attended Armenian Apostolic Church. "Then it began to unfold that this wasn't an isolated incident."

He shrugs at the prospect of handling these cases for the rest of his career. "I just accept the fact that this has happened," he says, deep-set eyes radiating a pragmatic empathy. "I see it as a social obligation."

Attorneys interviewed for this article say a case usually begins with a phone call from someone claiming they were molested by a priest. Such revelations are painful, and it can take several conversations before callers reveal their identity. One man called 15 times before giving Garabedian his name.

When a caller decides to come in, the first 90-minute interview may not get to details of abuse. Garabedian wants to hear a life history to determine the truthfulness of the potential client.

Small details help construct a larger picture. School histories confirm the alleged victim was in the town where the priest served. A sudden drop in grades or behavior problems are markers for when abuse began. Garabedian listens while an associate takes notes.

"I don't ask too many questions because I'm trying to calm them down," he says.

Other attorneys agree. "You can't treat these people like a number," Rubino says. "You can't indicate you've heard the story before. For many, it's the first time they've told anybody. To say, 'Come to the point' is wrong."

Interviews with family and friends also are part of the routine. Brothers and cousins sometimes confirm they were abused by the same priest. Some victims confided in someone years ago who can confirm the story.

The process takes time and money. Before Garabedian files a suit, a client can go through four to five months of interviews, therapy and background checks.

Often the effort is moot if the statute of limitations for civil action has expired. Most attorneys say they can file one claim for every 20 people they interview.

But filing a suit is no guarantee of a quick resolution. Cases drag on for years as attorneys for the dioceses challenge suits on grounds ranging from legal technicalities to plaintiff's character. Months, even years, are spent haggling over requests for church records.

Rubino had one case that went through 13 separate appeals. Garabedian spent five years on the Geoghan case before reaching an announced settlement with Cardinal Law in the spring. Six weeks later, the Boston Archdiocese backed out of the deal, sending the case back to the courts this week.

Days of quick settlements over

Attorneys who defend the church say the swift, quiet settlements of the past are now impossible with the flood of cases and news reports of church coverups.

"The quick, just settlement may be a victim of that national news," says Seth Taube, a New Jersey attorney. "I used to be able to close cases in exchange for a settlement and a confidentiality agreement. Now those cases get fought out."

The few final victories offer some satisfaction. Stevens says a solid case can win judgments starting at $500,000. "In a viable case, there is an expectation of significant monetary benefit to your client and you, but there are dozens where you do everything and wind up with nothing."

For some clients, the benefits come simply from having someone to talk to. Patrick McSorley, one of Geoghan's alleged victims, spent 12 years hiding from the fact he had been abused. The first person he told was Garabedian.

"He's my counsel," says McSorley, who has been represented by Garabedian for four years. "When I go talk to Mitchell, it's like therapy. He's the kind of person who makes you feel like you're not the only one and that it will be OK."

But some say the profusion of suits may be going too far. "There's a certain piling on in these cases, and we've already seen a number of suspect suits being dropped," Catholic League President William Donohue says. "People like myself are angered at the lack of leadership in the church," but it "shouldn't be sucker-punched by every Tom, Dick and Harry who thinks there are deep pockets to be found around the block."

Dion says emotions can take their toll. He warns attorneys their judgment could be affected by what he calls the "vicarious trauma" of associating too closely with a client's pain.

"Some attorneys get so wrapped up in the emotions of the case they want to win at any cost," he says. "They can forget it's about getting the best resolution for a client."

Attorneys acknowledge such effects. "A client tells you his first sexual experience was at the age of 10 when a priest forced his tongue down his throat, and you think about your kids," says Rubino, who has three children.

Some also must struggle with the idea of taking on the church. Attorney Darrell Papillon of Baton Rouge is a devout Catholic who once considered the priesthood.

"It took some time to understand that I'm not suing God. I got past that, but I don't always feel right about it when I walk out of Sunday Mass," says Papillon, 34.

While the abuse scandal is now in the public spotlight, attorneys expect interest in this issue will soon wane as the public's attention is dulled by repetition.

But Stevens, the Rockledge, Fla., attorney, expects a renewal of interest when young victims of the 1990s reach their early 30s — an age, he says, "when victims start to understand it was not their fault."

"I know these molesters are out there, and I know the victims are out there," he says. "Something will happen in the next 10 years that will start this over again."

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